Staying out of the sun is the best way to avoid sun-damaged skin. Other precautions include using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and avoiding sunlight in the middle of the day when UV rays are strongest. Treatment options to repair damaged skin include retinoids, lightening agents, chemical peels, laser skin resurfacing, dermabrasion and fillers.
Photoaging is the premature aging of your skin due to ongoing exposure to ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. Photodamage can come from natural UV radiation exposure from the sun or artificial UV light sources (tanning beds or sun lamps). UV exposure not only ages your skin more quickly than it naturally would, but can also increase your risk for skin cancer.
Photoaging is also called sun damage, solar damage, dermatoheliosis and photodamage.
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Chronological skin aging is the natural aging of your skin according to your age and your genetics. It’s not preventable. Photoaging is caused by a lifetime of UV radiation exposure, mostly from the sun. Photoaging causes DNA changes in the cells of your skin and can lead to cancer. If you take precautions, photoaging can be significantly reduced.
Once UV radiation changes your skin cells’ DNA, the DNA damage can’t be reversed. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t change the appearance of your skin. You can treat, reduce and/or repair the effects of sun-damaged skin. Treatments can remove spots and other skin discolorations, reduce wrinkles and fine lines, smooth out skin, stimulate new skin and collagen production — steps that improve the look, tone and quality of your skin.
Photoaging most commonly occurs in the most visible areas of your skin — on your face, neck, back of your hands, arms, legs and upper chest.
Everyone is susceptible to sun-damaged skin. However, you’re more at risk for skin damage if you:
People of all skin tones are exposed to UV radiation. Exposure to UV radiation increases the risk of sun-damaged skin. However, people of color are less likely to get sunburned because they have more of the brown pigment, melanin, in their skin. Melanin helps protect against some of the sun’s damaging UV rays.
If you’re Black or have skin of color — even though you’re less likely to get sunburned — you can still experience damaged skin or get a sunburn, which could be painful and cause peeling.
There’s a relationship between sun exposure and risk of skin cancer in lighter-skinned people, but no relationship seems to exist between sun exposure and skin cancer in dark-skinned individuals. People of color who develop skin cancer develop it mostly on the palms of their hands or the soles of their feet and it’s often in late stage when diagnosed. More study is needed to determine skin cancer risks and the effectiveness of treatments in dark-skinned people.
You have an increased risk for skin damage if you:
Signs of photoaging usually begin in your teens to early 20s. Signs include:
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes changes to the DNA in the cells of your skin. This can lead to premature skin aging (photoaging) and skin cancer. There are two types of UV light:
Complications of photoaging include:
Your dermatologist will conduct a complete physical exam. They’ll examine all exposed areas of your skin — your face, neck, ears, head, chest and back, arms, hands, legs and feet. They will use magnifying lenses to get a closer look for small abnormalities. Your dermatologist will biopsy any suspicious lesions.
Photodamage can’t be completely reversed but some treatment options can help rejuvenate your skin. Talk to your provider about the risks of complications. Possible treatments include:
It’s typically hard to prevent photoaging completely. Photoaging is sun damage that collects over a lifetime of exposure. While it’s difficult — and not wise — to avoid sunlight entirely, you can still take steps to limit your exposure to UV radiation to reduce premature skin aging. Remember that lowering your risk of sun damage also lowers your risk of skin cancer.
There are hundreds of over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. Before trying any products, it’s important to get a basic understanding of the ingredients in skincare products that can improve the quality of your skin. Some of the ingredients you’ll discover include retinoids, antioxidants, peptides, alpha hydroxy acids, emollients and humectants.
You may also read about many at-home remedies to treat wrinkles, age spots or aging skin in general. It’s best to ask your provider which products or ingredients might work. Many ingredients are discussed on the internet, but not all have the scientific evidence to support their use. Your dermatologist or other provider should have the expertise to guide you on the use of these products.
Your provider will conduct a full examination of all of your skin. They may refer you to a dermatologist. Any suspicious findings will be further checked for skin cancer.
If your skin is damaged from the cumulative effects of sun exposure, treatments are available to help improve the tone and quality of your skin. It’s wise to check with your insurance carrier before beginning any skin treatment. Many treatments are considered cosmetic and aren’t covered by insurance.
The best “treatment” for sun-damaged skin is to do your best to prevent it from happening in the first place. Always apply sunscreen, with 30 or higher SPF, to all exposed skin before leaving your home.
See your healthcare provider if:
The white spots, called idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis, are likely related to cumulative sun exposure. It’s most commonly seen in fair-skinned individuals but can also be seen in older dark-skinned persons, too. The areas most affected are the legs, arms, upper back and face. Legs are usually affected first, with white spots visible along the front of the leg. The white spots are due to a decrease in melanin in your skin. Idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis isn’t a harmful condition. If you’re unhappy with how the spots look, talk to a dermatologist about possible cosmetic treatments.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Enjoying nature, gardening, going for a walk, breathing in the fresh air — all are great reasons to be outside. If you want to keep your skin in the best shape possible, you’ll want to apply 30+ SPF sunscreen every day to all exposed skin before stepping a foot outside your door — even on cloudy days or before getting into your car for a quick shop at the grocery store. UV radiation, especially from the sun, prematurely ages your skin. See your dermatologist if you’re concerned about the quality of your skin or notice any changes in your skin color or skin spots or lesions. Many treatments are available to repair sun-damaged skin and to easily treat skin cancers that are caught early.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/28/2022.
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